Remembering the Apollo 204 Crew

Remembering the Apollo 204 Crew

On this day in 1967, three brave astronauts lost their lives in the Apollo 204 tragedy. Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chafee were killed when a fire erupted in their Apollo capsule during a pre-launch test of what was to have been the first Apollo launch. Hence this is sometimes referred to as Apollo 1, but it had the designation Apollo-Saturn 204 (AS-204) and traditionally is called Apollo 204.

Fate ordained that the three tragedies that have taken the lives of astronauts in mission-related accidents occurred within a few days of each other on the early winter calendar: Apollo 204 on January 27, 1967; the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986; and the space shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003. NASA has a “Day of Remembrance” for all three jointly on January 29, but it seems fitting to mention each of them individually here.

Many in the space community wistfully remember the Apollo era for its “can do” spirit and its successful accomplishment of a seemingly impossible task — landing men on the Moon and returning them safely to Earth within just 8 years of President John F. Kennedy announcing that goal. The memory of the sacrifices made to achieve that goal — especially of these lives lost — seems to have faded for many. It should not.

The cause of the fire was never conclusively determined, but is thought to have been electrical arcing that ignited combustible materials in the capsule. The test was conducted in an atmosphere of 100% oxygen at 16.7 pounds per square inch (psi) pressure, an environment perfect to feed a fire. The hatch was designed to open inward and could not be opered with the pressure inside higher than that outside. The crew could not escape and died from asphyxiation by toxic gases and from burns. Subsequently, the hatch was redesigned to open outwards and ground tests were no longer conducted in 100% oxygen, along with many other changes.

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